Science in Christian Perspective



Von Neumann, Jewish Catholic

Raymond J. Seeger

(NSF Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, MD 20816

From: PSCF 40 (December 1988): 234-236.

John von Neumann's life was a paradox. He has been called "one of the greatest mathematicians of the first half of the twentieth century" and "one of the best weapons men of the world." He combined intellectual brilliance and political astuteness. He was a paragon of science and technology, of pure and applied mathematics. He belonged to that so-called Hungarian phenomenon, which included also Dennis Gabor, Leo Szilard, Eduard Teller, and Eugene Wigner.

He was born in Budapest in 1903. His father Max was a rich banker, who became ennobled in 1913, and his mother Margaret Kann was a family person. He had two younger brothers. As a child, Johnny, as he was later familiarly called by all, had a nurse and then a governess. At ten he entered schooling at the Lutheran Gymnasium for boys. He was a precocious reader and a prodigy in arithmetic (particularly mental calculations). His mathematical genius was noted, and he was tutored by Leopold Fejer of the University of Budapest (he did not, however, skip any grades). At eighteen he was admitted to the University. He was free to leave it, and returned only for examinations. He visited the University of G6ttingen, where he met David Hilbert. He received a degree, at twenty-two, in chemical engineering from the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule in Zurich. The following year he was awarded a doctorate in mathematics by the University of Budapest; his dissertation was on set theory.

He became a Rockefeller Fellow at G6ttingen, where he studied the new quantum mechanics and operator theory. The following year he was appointed a privat dozent (licensed lecturer) at the University of Berlin. Two years later he held a similar position simultaneously at the University of Hamburg. At twenty-six he was Visiting Professor for a semester at Princeton University, and then alternated terms there and at Berlin for two years. When twenty-nine, he published the Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. The next year he was appointed professor at the new Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, and also married Marietta Kavesi, daughter of a Budapest physician. His only child, Marina, was born two years later. Both his wife and daughter left him after another two years. The following year he married the twice-divorced Klara Dan, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family. (She remarried after von Neumann's death and finally drowned strangely on a lonely La Jolla beach).

During World War II, von Neumann was a consultant for the Army Ballistic Research Laboratory, the Navy Bureau of Ordnance, and the Manhattan (Atomic Bomb) Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. His work at Los Alamos was probably the turning point of his career. At forty-one, with Oskar Morgenstern, he published The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, with its emphasis on bluffing. At fortyeight he became a member of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and of the Atomic Energy General Advisory Committee. He soon became chairman of the most important sub-committee (on weapons) of the former. He was made chairman of the SAB Nuclear Weapons Panel at fifty, and the year following was put on the DOD Atomic Advisory Panel.

After many sleepless nights, the following year von Neumann decided to take leave from the Institute and to accept a five-year term on the AEC, where at times he acted for the chairman Lewis Strauss. During this time, a pain in his shoulder revealed cancer of the bone. He had to cancel the Silliman Lectures at Yale on "The Computer and the Brain," but he continued to work-even harder. He died at the age of fifty-three.

Von Neumann had extraordinary mental abilities: he was fast thinking, fast talking, fast moving, and he had a photographic memory. His intellectual work was prodigious. Yet he was a man of the world, not a recluse. He knew many people and liked to gossip about them-a raconteur. Von Neumann was a bon vivant; he had a large residence with fine china and good silver. His house was a social center in Princeton, and he enjoyed the night-life of cabarets. He was urbane and cosmopolitan. Johnny was friendly and likeable; he was jovial and had a good sense of humor (including double-entendres and dirty limericks). He was never condescending, ever accessible, and always had a warm smile. Although he did not personally like J.R. Oppenheimer, he publicly defended Oppenheimer's national actions. There was, however, some arrested emotional development, such as an insensitivity to the feelings of women and a lack of sentiment. He advocated unlimited atomic testing, regardless of the hazards of fallout; in his case, possibly due to the insecurity of his Hungarian background with its internal anti-Semitism and its external Soviet pressure.

Von Neumann published about 150 papers, of which 130 were in mathematics. In 1954 he indicated that his most significant mathematical ones were on the theory of operators, a rigorous formulation of quantum mechanics (including Heisenberg and Schr6ndinger presentations), through the use of the Hilbert space and a proof of the quasi-ergodic theorem in statistical mechanics. His general approach was from the standpoint of axiomatization.

Jacob Bronowski, a mathematician collaborator of von Neumann, regarded von Neumann's two outstanding creativc contributions to be his theory of games (cL, the minimax theorem, 1928) and his logical design of calculating machines (cL, the MANIAC). He used the latter for solving the dynamical equations of air motion with respect to weather phenomena.

Von Neumann said in his autobiographical The Mathematician ( 1947): "The most vitally characteristic fact about mathematics is, in my opinion, its quite peculiar relationship to the natural sciences." As a collaborator of his on the theory of shockwaves (a nonlinear phenomenon), I assisted in searching how nature itself solves nonlinear equations. Later, we used numerical analysis for what he called "experimental mathematics," i.e., to seek solutions for simple models with the hope of identifying corresponding analytical functions.

It was in 1940 that von Neumann turned his attention primarily to applied mathematics, which was particularly evident in his chief contributions to the use of atomic energy. He was responsible for the implosion method of detonating an atomic bomb (tested at Alamagoro and used at Nagasaki), as well as the development of the hydrogen bomb. He was a catalyst with respect to the improvement of electronic calculators and of nuclear weapons. He had no faith in disarmament. He was an advocate of the ICBM.

He received honorary Doctorates of Science from Princeton, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Case, Istanbul, and Maryland. He was made a member of the National Academy of Science at thirty-three. He was a Corresponding Member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Science and an Associate Member of the Academia Nacional de Ciencias Exactos. President of the American Mathematical Society for two years, he was a member of the American Philosophical Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Mathematical Association, and a fellow of the American Physical Society. He was editor of the Princeton Annals of Mathematics and co-editor of the Dutch Compositia Mathematica.

Von Neumann received the Navy Civilian Distinguished Service award and the Presidential Medal of Merit. In 1956 he was given the first Fermi Gold Medal and $50,000 Fermi Award for his contributions to atomic energy. Nevertheless, Bronowski, citing "an age-old conflict between intellectual leadership and civil authority," felt that von Neumann had "wasted the last years of his life." He was accused of being in "love with the aristocracy of the intellect" instead of favoring "the democracy of the intellect." Bronowski felt that von Neumann gravitated to "enterprises that brought him to the centres of power." On the contrary, those very centers sought him because he could and would help in the solution of human problems. Not everyone can be a persona grata both to the theoretical and to the practical-a bridge between the passively indifferent and the actively powerful. To my mind, to have an aristocracy of the intellect serve the democracy of society is an ideal for which von Neumann was peculiarly a model par excellence.

Some people claim that von Neumann was an agnostic. I must confess that we never discussed religion. It may be that his very silence was an indication of his sincerity. On the other hand, he showed little interest in the philosophical aspects of quantum mechanics. It is noteworthy that he was uninhibited by ethical considerations in weaponry. I was surprised, therefore, when he died a Roman Catholic. To be sure, his first wife had been Catholic. I presume that he was a nominal one in those early days of his marriage. In his last illness, he asked for a clergyman, but he surprised them by insisting upon a Roman Catholic priest. A Benedictine was succeeded by a Jesuit for instruction. The attending Air Force chaplain told me that Johnny could quote the Penitential Psalms in Latin. I attended the Catholic burial service at the Walter Reed Army Hospital, where he died. He was buried in Princeton, New Jersey.